The Bad Habit That Can Ruin Your Health: Ignoring Sleep
…Major Cause of Chronic Disease No One’s Talking About
Researchers and epidemiologists have been reporting on a public health epidemic sweeping the nation that no one is really talking about. 28% of Americans are severely deficient in this nutrient that when lacking causes everything from diabetes to obesity to dementia. (1) Deficiency is increasing at an alarming rate, with the average amount consumed by Americans dropping 18% over 35 years. What is this nutrient? Vitamin S: sleep!
In 1960, the average American slept 8.5 hours. In 1995, it sank to only 7 hours. (2) The number of people in severe sleep debt, described as less than 6 hours of sleep per night on average, has also skyrocketed during this time and is now almost 1 in 3 Americans.
We all know we have a circadian rhythm. But I’m sure most of us thought that this rhythm exists only in the brain, there to make us sleepy. The truth is that almost every cell in your body, from your toes to your intestines to your adrenals, has a circadian rhythm. When you’re wide awake or eating a big meal when it’s dark outside, you’re not just messing with your brain, but with your whole body!
Blood Sugar and Weight
One of the biggest ways this manifests is in your blood sugar. Just six nights of 4 hours of sleep decreases the rate at which your body can use glucose by a whopping 40%! (3) This means the carbs you eat will hang out in your blood stream much longer, causing high fasting glucose. Higher blood sugar can then lead to increased weight and carbohydrate cravings.
In a tightly controlled experiment, researchers randomly assigned one group to sleep as desired at the hospital and the other was allowed only 2/3 of their normal sleep, which equaled a reduction of about 2.5 hours. Both groups were allowed access to a cafeteria to eat whenever they wanted. The result was that over the next 8 days, the sleep-restricted group ate on average 677 calories more per day! This also meant that they gained a pound during the experiment. (1)
In another trial, researchers put 2 groups on the same calorie-restricted diet to create weight loss, allowing one group to sleep 8.5 hours and the other to sleep 5.5 hours. (4) The sleep-restricted group lost half as much body fat over 2 weeks as the well-rested group! What’s even worse is that they also lost more muscle and had increased hunger. So don’t go through all the effort to eat well if you’re not also prioritizing your sleep!
For more on this, read my blog post about weight loss here.
Sleep & Memory Loss
Other than fatigue, hunger, weight gain, and hyperglycemia, poor sleep habits can also decrease brain function and memory. Disruptions in a normal circadian rhythm are seen before symptoms start developing in Alzheimer’s and are believed to have a causal role. Poor sleep, either deprivation or mistimed, can exacerbate the development of plaques in the brain, increase stress hormones, and impede repair of neurons. (5) Just like a fire produces ash when it creates energy, our bodies produce ash in the process of metabolism. There is twice as much clean-up action of this trash as well as toxins while we sleep at night as there is during the day. (6) In fact, studies show that melatonin at night and bright light therapy in the morning can help improve cognitive function in those with dementia.
The catch is, this is more effective earlier in life and the more severe the disease, the less effective the interventions. So don’t wait to find out if this is something that could impact you, take advantage now when it can make the most difference!
And in case you think you’re good because you sleep from 12:30-7:30, sleep timing is important too, not just total hours. Studies show that going to sleep after midnight increases the risk of obesity, high stress hormones, increased hunger, and sleep apnea. (7) Those who label themselves as night owls have a higher weight and worse dietary habits. (8) Our circadian rhythm is ruled by the sun, and after it’s gone down we should start getting into our bedtime routine. Darkness initiates a cascade of hormones to prepare your body to recover and repair, that we can miss out on by pushing through to get our second wind. Some people might get a second wind at 9pm and others at 10:30, we don’t all have the exact same rhythm, but none of us are designed to stay up 6 hours after the sun sets!
Yet how many of you when you go to your doctor and complain of symptoms or have concerning blood work get asked, How much sleep do you get and at what times? If we were to treat this bad habit as seriously as it deserves to be treated, we might be able to significantly decrease some of the leading causes of death in America.
For more on this topic, listen to my podcast on Debunking the Top 4 Sleep Myths.
Here are some quick and easy ways to improve sleep:
- Avoid stimulating activities within an hour of sleep (screens, news, exercise, finances)
- Reduce exposure to light by only using dim orange tinted bulbs in lamps
- Don’t eat within 2 hours of going to sleep
- Have a calming routine- meditation, stretching, organizing, reading, journaling
- Use lavender essential oil, either rubbing on your wrists or diffusing
- No caffeine after 2pm or noon if you’re sensitive
- Set up your environment to remind you- use Night mode on your devices, set the temp to automatically decrease at a certain time, put timers on the lamps to go on an hour before bed
SUMMARY: To keep your brain working, prevent chronic diseases, and have a healthy body fat, get 7-9 hours of sleep and try to time it with the sun (aim for those 8 hours to finish when the sun is about to rise!).